Why I’m passionate about content metrics

…and why return on investment (ROI) is not the best metric to use for measuring content value.

I’ve been ruminating on the topic of content value (more than I usually do) since Tom Johnson published his essay on technical communication value last month. I’ve studied measurement, experimentation, and statistical process control in applications other than writing and I have also seen them repeatedly and painfully applied to writing. The results have been, almost without exception, anywhere from disappointing to destructive. Until this morning, I haven’t been able to articulate why. Thankfully, a post in Medium by Alan Cooper provided the shift in perspective to help me bring everything into focus. I’m passionate about this because it’s the new view of tech comm that is needed for the 21st century.

Writing is a process, but it’s not a manufacturing process

Alan Cooper’s post, titled “ROI Does Not Apply,” describes how “ROI is an industrial age term, applicable to companies that manufacture things in factories.” Writing is not a manufacturing process. Granted, there are some manufacturing-like elements of the writing process as you get closer to publishing the content—and honestly, making that part of the process as commodity-like as possible has some benefits. But, writers add the most value to the content where the process is complicated and non-linear: towards the beginning, where concepts, notions, and ideas are brought together to become a serial string of words. That’s were ROI and other productivity measures are inappropriate—they don’t measure what’s important to adding value.

Writing value vs. writing costs

Alan Cooper’s article says that innovation is what drives differentiation in the post-industrial world and that innovation means learning by trial and error. “Containing costs is antithetical to innovation,” he says. I couldn’t agree more, but that doesn’t mean that innovators should get a blank check, which is what one, cost-conscious manager might easily assume.  He also says, “The cost of innovation is irrelevant if you can innovate. If you can’t come up with something new and desirable, then you’ve just wasted money. That is terrifying to an old-school, industrial-age manager.” That describes innovation as an existential requirement, which it might very well be.

Innovators (technical writers in this context) should be cost-aware to show to stakeholders that they know the value they are trying to achieve and will look for the best way to innovate responsibly. More to the point, writers (and innovators, in general) need to know both the value and cost of innovation to demonstrate that they are innovating in the right direction.

To be successful at learning by trial and error you need to know when you succeed and when you fail—you know what’s valuable and when you’re increasing or decreasing that value. Only if you’re cost aware, will you know the cost of adding that value. With that knowledge, you can refine your innovations through informed iteration. Uninformed iteration is just shooting in the dark. Value over cost might look like return on investment, and it might actually be the same, depending on your particular ROI formula (you knew there was more than one, right?). Call it what you will, the innovation goal is to provide more value, not just a higher ROI (margin). Why? Because you can provide a high margin with a low value.

Focusing on value over margin keeps your eye on the prize. Focusing on ROI keeps your eye on the margin–often at the expense of the prize (value).

Moving the conversation beyond ROI

ROI has had a long time to entrench itself in management practice and lore. Alan Cooper observes in his article, “There remain a lot of foolish young manager-wannabes, trained by older executives and academics who cut their teeth in the industrial age, who still use ROI in their work. But they are going to fail.” Tom’s essay quoted an article from 20141 that concluded the ROI of content is difficult to measure. I agree that it is, just like it’s hard to tell how tall someone is by placing them on a scale.

I disagreed, however, with the conclusions of Tom’s essay that “Measuring our [technical writer’s] value through metrics is impractical and ill-advised; it is better to gather word-of-mouth perceptions of our value from groups that use our documentation.” I argued in my comments that followed Tom’s essay, “Tech comm set itself up for an impossible task when continued to sell its value based on unmeasurable goals and was then asked to show the measurements.” My comments continued, “Instead of giving up on measurement (which I am convinced will not end well), I suggest we change the values of content that tech comm promotes to be more measurable–and then think about measurement of those values every time a topic is authored.

To get away from ROI, tech comm needs to provide more meaningful metrics for performance and value than ROI or any other process-oriented measure. Tech comm needs to provide value-driven metrics to drive the conversation towards what matters: value-added.

Why I’m passionate about measuring value

I have developed and documented products and I see tech comm as a critical success factor of the product. I’m passionate about this because I think its value has been poorly articulated and is frequently underrated. I want to change that because articulating the value of tech comm more clearly offers benefits to customers, companies, and, of course, Technical Communicators.

Unfortunately, tech comm is not always perceived or measured as a valuable component of the product. How tech comm contributes to a product’s success and how much it contributes depends on the specifics. Tom’s essay and describes cases where tech comm (and by extension, technical writers) is often seen as a cost or something peripheral to the product. Clearly articulating the value of tech comm will help technical writers describe and discuss it in terms that are equal to other aspects of the product so it can be recognized as something more integral to the product.

In spite of the observations that Alan Cooper makes in his article, ROI and other industrial-age concepts will be with us for some time to come so the conversation will need to accommodate that language, at least for the immediate future. Value is often measured in (or easily converted to) some unit of currency, which makes it easy to relate to people who are comfortable with discussing ROI. Speaking in terms of value also steers the conversation away from cost and emphasizes what tech comm adds to the project, not just what it costs the project. While tech comm does, in fact, have a cost, it’s important to start the conversation from its value.

How to move the conversation towards value and away from cost

To start talking about value, you need to clarify what’s valuable. Then:

  • measure it
  • promote it
  • repeat it

For every piece of content you publish, you should be able to articulate the value it adds, how it adds that value, and why it adds that value. If you can do that now, great! You’re ready to move on the next step. If you cannot, you’ll need to figure it out before you move on. YOU CAN’T SKIP THIS STEP!!!

I wrote my Audience, Market, Product presentation for API documentation, but much of it can be adapted to other documentation types. Check out that presentation if you need some help getting started with identifying the content’s value.

With a clear understanding of the value that the content adds, think of ways that you can measure it. A lot of technical documentation is written without either explicit value or measuring that value in mind, so actually measuring this could require rethinking your content. That being said, it will be a lot easier to solve the problem once you identify the problem you want to solve. With a clear problem in mind, you might start to see some measurement ideas come into focus. The specific way to measure value of content depends on the nature of the reader’s interaction with the content, which I talk about in my Readers’ goals topics.

As you start accumulating data on the value of your content, you can start bringing that information into conversations about the content. You’ll need to think differently than before, shift the prevailing conversations, and, if you’re not familiar with managerial accounting, move into some new territory—but aren’t those the challenges that attracted you to technical writing in the first place?

It’s a long-term proposition, but even a journey of a 1,000 miles, starts with the first step.

1 Carliner, S., Qayyum, A, Sanchez-Lozano, J. C. August, 2014. What Measures of Productivity and Effectiveness Do Technical Communication Managers Track and Report?. Technical Communication, Volume 61, Number 3, STC.

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